Friday, December 18th.
Middle of the day.
Tomorrow marks the two week mark since we left South Africa. For one week we were thrown around the walls in the guts of the Shackleton, on the other one either we were sailing smoothly over the ocean or were ruining the ship’s paint job hitting ice blocs that would shame any industrial freezer head first.
Day #13 at sea and we finally got to the frozen continent. It was almost sudden. I was having my lunch and when I look to the side hatch, all you could see was ice. I immediately though the we were having a Titanic moment but it turns out that the captain was already engaging docking maneuvers.
We weren’t the first ones here. N9 is already littered with red and black flags, fitted on bambu sticks. Halley’s field guide team was here a short time ago and flagged all the dangerous areas with the red flags and used the black ones to mark the secure route back to Halley.
This was one of the quickest trips ever. True, it was one of the earliest exits out of Cape Town, but still. In total we were less than 24 hours stopped due to sea ice and for the most of it we didn’t stray too far away from the initial route. Total travel time: 13 days. It has to be some kind of record! While I was around Cambridge, most of the people that I’d met that had been through this trip told me that I would be 3 weeks in the ocean, minimum. I was a day short of two!
It seems that Neptune was rooting for us since that all the bad weather that we went through summed up to a rainy afternoon right after departing Cape Town and half a dozen hours of light snow here and there. Given the hostile waters that we were in, it was really lucky I guess.
I got the warmed clothes that I could find around my room and went outside to the prow watch the the docking maneuvers with the rest of the audience and took some photos.
As I got outside I immediately spot the biggest, fattest Emperor penguin that I’ve seen so far. It was a really big critter, over a meter high and with a big belly and, looking at the surrounding snow, we were docking in its toilet..
He wasn’t very happy to see us that’s for sure.
Before stopping, the ship grazed the shoring area in order to smooth out a piece of the shore so it could get as close as possible from the ice.
This particular maneuver seemed to annoy our penguin. After a couple of pissed off “croacs”, he turned his back on us and went back to water.
After being shifted into the correct position, the ship was secured with a pair of snow anchors. A snow anchor is a surprisingly strong and simple thing to set up. The ship has two very thick ropes on each side of the deck. At the end of each one a heavy wooden 4×4 is tied up that is going to be buried in a meter or so of snow, perpendicular to the direction in which the rope is going to be pulled when the winds and current push the Shack away from the shore.
Two teams went first to dig the snow trenches to bury the snow anchors and they were met by a pair of Adélie penguins. These are the ones that look like a stuffed animal and they walk as they are about to hit with their beak on the snow. They are curious but cautious too. The go near humans but not that much. These two spend a couple of minutes investigating what the humans were doing and then went to their penguin life. The Emperors on the other hand are arrogant as they come. They weight as much as a small child or a very large baby, walk like someone who had his sleeves glued to their side and, mostly, they don’t give a rat’s bottom about us.
The rest of the day was spent between briefings and more training. Relief jobs were scheduled for next morning. This would be the last night ship side for the teams that would deal with relief from station side. Initially I was allocated to the station, with no specific position. I was on the night shift “hands on” team, i.e, I would be doing whatever was necessary. But, in the end of that day someone must have though that I look like someone who would like to work in a gas station and I end up getting allocated to the fuel transfer team. We are going to move the fuel from the Shackleton’s hold into several portable containers that would then be dragged on skis back to Halley.
It seems that I’m not going to meet Halley so soon. Bah, I have plenty of time for that. For now I just want to get over with relief.
The first Antarctic rookies got out that afternoon to step on the continent, or better, to step into the ice that covers the continent for the first time. The ones that had been here before didn’t even bother to get out to the deck even. Its one of those things, for those who never been here, its an extraordinary event, this one of putting you foot down in a new continent for the first time ever, specially one so hard to get to. For the other ones that are in their 12587th time that are with antarctic snow all the way up to their ankles, I can understand the irrelevance of the event.
I was on synop duty that day and I still had the 18:00 to do. I had only half an hour until there. Also there was a whole protocol to follow before stepping out of the ship: we need to get a radio unit, do an exit log on the ship bridge and pick up a life saving vest. By the time I would finish it, it was time to go back inside again. As such I remained in the deck watching them running around all crazy, trying to make snowballs (the snow here is too loose for that) and freezing their butts off making snow angels.
By the time we finished dinner, I end up getting outside alone. Everyone was already sick of snow by then.
The sky was overcast has usual but fortunately it wasn’t windy when I step out of the gangplank to to ice bellow. I considered a proper fitting first but since I wasn’t to go out for so long, I thought it wasn’t worth it. Instead I just got an extra coat and a pair of thicker gloves. I must have been outside for just half an hour tops. I was all alone, with not even a penguin to keep me company and as such it wasn’t a good idea to go wild exploring. I just did a small walk around were I saw footprints. Snow around here is weird, but considering that I had two hours worth of experience with it so far, who am I to judge? It looks like that icing sugar that was left in the back of the cupboard for too long. Its not quite loose as sand but you can’t make snow balls or snowmen with with. The clumps fall apart as soon as you step on them or when you try to shape them into throwing ammunition and digging fresh snow feels like your pouring sugar into the tea.
In most place is loose enough to bury your feet up ti the ankle every time you step on it, which make walking on it slow, tiring and somewhat frustrating.
I soon regretted not bringing out the mukluks. They are giant boots, each one weighting close to 15 kilos and I look like an orangutan every time I try to walk with those. But they are great and my feet stay warm and cozy, like I was wearing croissants right out of the oven. I can spend a whole day running around the snow with them without getting my feet fresh even.
Instead I took my normal mountain boots and after 5 minutes I couldn’t feel my toes…